The charming city of GAZIMAĞUSA (Famagusta), is second only to Girne in the north’s tourism league table. Like Girne it boasts an atmospheric old town surrounded by crumbling Venetian walls, a legacy of its strategic position facing the Middle East. Its shops, restaurants and cafés are threaded through and between the photogenic remains of churches destroyed or damaged during the Ottoman siege of 1570–71. Immediately to the south lies the ghost town of Varosha, once the heart of Famagusta’s tourist trade, now isolated by the Turkish invasion of 1974. To the north lie a clutch of historically important sites – ancient Enkomi/Alasia, the monastery of Apostolos Varnavas, the Royal Tombs, and above all ancient Salamis – and the miles of beaches that line Gazimağusa Bay.
Confusingly, Gazimağusa is known by a host of different names. The city was renamed Gazimağusa (sometimes shortened to Mağusa) by the Turks in 1974, having been known as Famagusta, from French (Famagouste) and Italian (Famagosta), since Lusignan/Venetian times. In Greek it is known as Ammochostos. If that wasn’t puzzling enough the name Famagusta/Ammochostos is also used by the republic for the district across the Green Line to the east, of which the city is the notional capital.
The current site of Gazimağusa was established during the Byzantine era by refugees from Salamis, after that city was destroyed by Arab raids. The new city reached its zenith under the Lusignans, especially after the Fall of Acre to the Saracens in 1291 AD brought an influx of Christian merchants and craftsmen. When the pope banned direct economic ties with the infidel, Gazimağusa became a major entrepôt for the whole of the Middle East, famous for its wealth and as a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs – hence the huge variety and number of churches (one, it was said, for every day of the year). It went into something of a decline from the late fourteenth century onwards, but was fortified under the Venetians as they tried to meet the growing threat from Ottoman expansion. As at Girne and Lefkosia, this did them little good – the city fell in 1571 after a nine-month siege, thus completing the Ottoman conquest of the island. It is said that 100,000 cannonballs crashed into the city during the siege and, since no attempt was made by the Ottomans to repair the damage, the remains still stand today. Three years after the siege, Greek residents were expelled from within the walls. Many of them resettled just to the south, creating what later became Varosha. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Varosha and its beaches were at the heart of massive tourist development, only to be frozen in time by the Turkish invasion.Read More
The city walls
The city walls
Originally built by the Lusignans, Gazimağusa’s city walls owe their present impressive dimensions and design to the Venetians, who spent half a century up to 1540 remodelling them for medieval battle, for example, building ramps up which to haul cannons, and making square towers round, so that they were proof against artillery fire. A dry moat was cut around three of the four sides – the fourth faces the sea. Unfortunately you cannot make a complete circuit of the walls – the northern bastions (Diamante and Martinegro) are restricted areas. This was not the case under the British who played golf along the ramparts in the 1930s.
The Land Gate and Ravelin Bastion
In the southwest corner of the walls is the Land Gate, one of the two original main gates (the other being the Sea Gate) to the old town. As you approach across the bridge, look to the right for a good view of the stretch of wall to the first “Santa Napa” bastion. Once inside you’ll find the tourist office to the left. The Ravelin Bastion (or Rivettina Bastion) in front of the gate was heavily involved in the Siege of Famagusta, and when it finally seemed bound to be taken by the attackers, the Venetians blew it up, killing, it’s said, a thousand Ottoman soldiers and a hundred of their own. This was also where the white flag of surrender was flown, prompting the victors to rename it Akkule, or “White Bastion”. The innards of the bastion, a warren of passages, rooms and flights of steps, are open to the public.
The Canbulat Bastion
As you circle the walls in an anticlockwise direction, the next major bastion – the Canbulat Bastion – is in the southeast corner. It is named after one of the Turkish heroes of the siege of Famagusta, Canbulat, the Bey of Kilis. Faced with a fearsome defensive device consisting of knives attached to a rapidly rotating wheel, Canbulat rode his horse full tilt into it, killing both himself and his steed, but jamming the wheel and making it ineffective. His tomb, which is in the bastion, once had a fig tree growing out of it, whose fruit, if eaten by young women, would not only ensure conception, but also that the resulting children would be as brave as Canbulat. There’s a small museum containing oddments of costume, artillery and Venetian and Ottoman ceramics.
The Sea Gate
After the Canbulat Bastion, the walls swing north, parallel to the sea. Note to the left of the wall, the remains of the Hospital of St Antony, which was built using stone taken from the ruins of Salamis. Beyond them is the Sea Gate, which once provided access from the port. A squat and solid-looking fortification with a signature statue of a Venetian lion at its base, it has massive iron-clad wooden gates, Ottoman in origin, and a heavy Venetian iron portcullis (both shrouded in tarpaulin at the time of writing). The top of the Sea Gate is accessible via a steep flight of steps from inside the town at the end of Liman Yolu; the views across the town one way, and the port the other, are worth the climb. Looking north from the Sea Gate you can see a variety of ships in the harbour, many of them Turkish naval vessels (which is why the northern parts of the walls are off limits). Incidentally, the Venetian lion is said to open its mouth once a year – if you’re nearby when it does so, plunge your hand down its throat and you will retrieve treasure.
Beyond the Sea Gate stands the massive Othello’s Tower. The name is a little fanciful, bestowed by the British on the strength of the locations mentioned in Shakespeare’s play: “A seaport in Cyprus” and “a hall in the castle”. Indeed its alternative name, “The Citadel”, is a better description. Above the entrance in the southwest corner is a large relief of the Lion of St Mark, the Venetian emblem. Despite its Venetian exterior you can still make out the original Lusignan fortress beneath: the large central courtyard on the north side is the Great Hall, still used for concerts and performances. The views from the battlements are as good as those from the Sea Gate. Look out, too, for the ventilation shafts designed to clear smoke from the cannons inside the tower; a few of these were filled in with rubble prompting rumours that the Venetians had buried their gold here rather than see it fall into the hands of the Ottomans.
The old town
The old town
Within the walls, the old town of Gazimağusa is an appealing jumble of ruined churches, odd bits of medieval masonry, cafés, restaurants and shops, tree-shaded and flower-bedecked and much of it pedestrianized. The best approach, once you’ve entered through the Land Gate and perhaps visited the tourist office, is to head up the main street Istiklal Caddesi towards the central square, Namik Kemal Meydani, perusing shops and cafés as you go. East and south of the main square is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, good for souvenir hunting, and overlooked by picturesque ruins. You can imagine a similar scene in medieval times, though with the great Gothic churches intact, rising above people’s homes.